The Freedom to Tell Stories: A Banned Books Week Manifesto

When it comes to books, “necessary” might actually be one of the most dangerous words. It suggests that some books should—nay, deserve!—to fade into obscurity, while others should be lauded by all. Every year for Banned Books Week, schools, libraries, and bookstores huddle around a similar list of (admittedly great) English-language titles—BELOVED, CATCH-22, CATCHER IN THE RYE, etc. After all, they were saved from hellfire! But what about books beyond the standard list?

This year, we’re changing our perspective on Banned Books Week by exploring books that have been banned internationally, in other countries—books written by authors who have been jailed, forced in exile, and sometimes even killed for their words. To help us out, we asked Quarterly Conversation editor-in-chief Scott Esposito, freelance writer and translation enthusiast Lori Feathers, translator and editor Sophie Hughes, and BAREFOOT DOGS author Antonio Ruiz-Camacho to suggest some internationally banned books.

Their powerful choices reveal the scope of this project. Banned Books Week is about more than just the books that get challenged in America because of profanity or sexual content (often minor in both cases); Banned Books Week is about celebrating the freedom to read freely around the world, even if the books and authors in question are sometimes controversial and even, in one particular case below, abhorrent.

Scott Esposito picks...

Gargoyles: A Novel (Vintage International) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781400077557
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Vintage - October 17th, 2006

Thomas Bernhard may be the only author on this list to have banned himself. In a legendary act of spite that he referred to as “posthumous literary emigration,” Bernhard directed in his last will and testament that his novels and plays could not be published or staged in his native Austria for the duration of his copyright over them. Which seems a little counterproductive as a punishment, as his literature is often an exacting condemnation of precisely what he detested about his fatherland—wouldn’t he want Austrians to read it? But anyway, thankfully he did not disbar the rest of the world from publishing it, and this is a right you should definitely exercise. I recommend you start with the grotesque, spectacular GARGOYLES.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (Vintage International) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780679724490
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Vintage - April 3rd, 1991

As politics in Argentina were going from bad to worse—that is, from a fascistic government under the military officer Juan Perón to an outright military junta that murdered tens of thousands of its own citizens—Manuel Puig decided to publish a brazenly sexual novel about two Argentine men locked away in a military prison, one of whom was an insurgent fighter, and the other of whom was a homosexual. If ever there were a book destined to be banned. But it is also an astonishing novel that was far, far ahead of its time—for starters, it anticipated the sampling and cultural recycling that has been popularized by Internet culture, and it also pioneered an understanding of gender, sexuality, and identity that has only just recently become widespread and popular. Plus, it’s just an incredibly entertaining, moving, and beautifully-written book.

Petals of Blood (Penguin African Writers Series #1) Cover Image
By Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Moses Isegawa (Introduction by), Chinua Achebe (Series edited by)
ISBN: 9780143039174
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Penguin Classics - February 22nd, 2005

This is an author who has done many different things to get himself banned. The troubles started in 1976 with his novel PETALS OF BLOOD, which deals with the aftermath of the Kenyan independence movement. This book was incendiary because it delved into the incredibly controversial and frightening Mau Mau Uprising (a thing many in Kenyan politics would like to forget).

His next work, a play titled I WILL MARRY WHEN I WANT, was controversial for its themes, but even more because Ngũgĩ chose to write it in the indigenous language Gikuyu, which the Kenyan government has sought to suppress. Since then, as he has continued to write important, politically-charged works, he has been imprisoned and harassed in his native Kenya, forcing him to live much of his life in exile. His magnum opus, and an extraordinary read, is the 800-page WIZARD OF THE CROW, a remarkable modern fable about African power politics that also is a deep examination of storytelling and folktales.

Scott Esposito is the co-author of THE END OF OULIPO? His book THE SURRENDER will be published next spring. In August, he interviewed Ben Moser about Clarice Lispector for The Paris Review Daily, and other recent publications include the San Francisco Chronicle, the Literary Hub, Words Without Borders, and the Times Literary Supplement. He's a Contributing editor to BOMB magazine.

Lori Feathers picks...

The Stalin Epigram Cover Image
ISBN: 9781416598657
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Simon & Schuster - June 1st, 2010

We are living, but can’t feel the land where we stay,
More than ten steps away you can’t hear what we say.

These first two lines of Osip Mandelstam’s STALIN EPIGRAM (reproduced with the permission of translator Dmitri Smirnov) distill the emotional alienation inflicted by censorship. The poet and essayist Mandelstam lived for years in debilitating fear, not knowing whether he and his wife Nadezhda would be executed because of his writings. Stalin enjoyed playing psychological games with Mandelstam, once arresting and sentencing him to death only to later reduce his sentence to exile to Russia’s interior.

Mandelstam wrote STALIN EPIGRAM in 1933 but was not arrested for it until five years later. He died soon after in a Soviet prison camp at the age of forty-seven. The artist’s years of creativity and anguish are captured in Robert Littell’s absorbing historical novel, THE STALIN EPIGRAM, and in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, HOPE AGAINST HOPE and HOPE ABANDONED.

Life and Fate Cover Image
By Vasily Grossman, Robert Chandler (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781590172018
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: NYRB Classics - May 16th, 2006

Rightly compared to WAR AND PEACE for the grandeur of its scale and ambition, LIFE AND FATE portrays the life of ordinary Soviet citizens and soldiers during World War II. Grossman not only provides a vivid, historical account of the hardships endured by Hitler’s invasion but through the novel’s flesh-and-blood characters, he exposes the terrors wrought by Soviet totalitarianism, questioning whether fascism would be any worse than Stalin’s dictatorship.

Although he finished the novel years earlier, Grossman waited until 1960 to submit the manuscript of LIFE AND FATE for publication under the mistaken belief that Khrushchev’s “thaw” signaled what would be a likely openness to his novel. In February 1961, the KGB came to his home and confiscated what they believed to be the only copies of the novel, and according to Robert Chandler in his introduction to the novel (New York Review of Books edition), this is the only time that Soviet authorities “arrested” a book rather than its author (other than the temporary confiscation of Bulgakov’s A DOG’S HEART).

Grossman died in 1964 and it was not until ten years later that his friend was able to smuggle out of the Soviet Union one of the two secret copies of this remarkable novel.

The Family Mashber Cover Image
By Der Nister, Leonard Wolf (Translated by), David Malouf (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781590172797
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: NYRB Classics - May 20th, 2008

Der Nister, which means “the hidden one,” was the pen name of Ukrainian author Pinhas Kahanovitch. His THE FAMILY MASHBER is a detail-rich, dramatic novel about a prosperous Jewish family living in 1870s Ukraine. Along with its colorful depiction of Yiddish society in Eastern Europe and the robust commercial ties that existed between Jewish merchants/bankers and the local Polish nobility, the book’s focus is the family crisis that develops when one of the Mashber brothers breaks with the community’s religious traditions.

Der Nister was among a group of Yiddish writers that was arrested by Soviet authorities in 1949, and he died soon after in a Soviet prison hospital. The first two volumes of THE FAMILY MASHBER are contained in the New York Review of Books edition; the third, completed but not published prior to Der Nister’s death, has never been found.

Lori Feathers is a freelance book critic. Her recent reviews can be found at Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, Three Percent, Rain Taxi, and on Twitter @LoriFeathers.

Sophie Hughes picks...

Lysistrata Cover Image
By Aristophanes, Douglass Parker (Translated by), Judith Fletcher (Afterword by)
ISBN: 9780451531247
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Signet - April 7th, 2009

LYSISTRATA is perhaps the best known of Aristophanes’ surviving comedies, and was banned in 1967 in Greece because of its anti-war message. If you don’t know anything about the plot, you won’t spot the implicit irony in the mere single accusation that it is anti-war. By modern standards, it is also incredibly lewd and explicit. Our titular heroine’s name, Lysistrata, translates as “she who disbands armies.” She does so by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands, forcing them to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata’s sex-strike speeches, and the MONTY PYTHON-esque double entendres are simply unmissable:

CLEONICÉ: And why do you summon us, dear Lysistrata? What is it all about?
LYSISTRATA: About a big affair.
CLEONICÉ: And is it thick too?

Mein Kampf Cover Image
By Konrad Heiden (Introduction by), Ralph Manheim (Translated by), Adolpf Hitler
ISBN: 9780395925034
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Mariner Books - September 15th, 1998

Adolf Hitler’s political manifesto, was unsurprisingly banned in most European countries and in several others around the world. In early 2014, digital sales soared, and arguments for whether Mein Kampf should still be read or not abounded. Of course, one must decide for oneself. Oddly, there is also a nice piece of bookshop trivia about MEIN KAMPF: during WWII, at the start of the Blitz, co-founder of London’s Foyles bookshop, William Foyles, filled sandbags with old books to protect the shop from damage and covered the roof with copies of Mein Kampf to ward off bombers.

Ulysses Cover Image
ISBN: 9780199535675
Availability: BACKORDERED
Published: Oxford University Press, USA - September 1st, 2011

James Joyce’s novel ULYSSES was temporarily banned in UK, Australia and U.S.A for its sexual content. There’s really nothing I can add to Adam Thirwell’s incisive, joyous essay/review, “It’s Still A Scandal!,” which I read earlier this year in The New York Review of Books. For me, as a literary translator, ULYSSES is a bible. Do I understand it all? Of course not! But Joyce is my unfailing saviour when I’m stuck for a voice…

Sophie Hughes is a literary translator and editor living in Mexico City. Her translations and reviews have appeared in Asymptote, Dazed and Confused, Words Without Borders, The White Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. Her translation of Iván Repila’s internationally acclaimed novel THE BOY WHO STOLE ATTILA’S HORSE is published this fall by Pushkin Press.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho picks...

Kiss of the Spider Woman (Vintage International) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780679724490
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Vintage - April 3rd, 1991

It almost feels silly to include on this list a novel that has been, we assume, so widely read—and then there's the 1985 movie adaptation, directed by Hector Babenco, and the Broadway adaptation, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1993 and ran for more than 900 performances. But have people actually read it? I'm sure I'm not the only one who watched the movie first and then read the book, as I'm convinced somebody else has already said this: nothing prepares you for this book. KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, which depicts the relationship between two inmates inside a prison cell during the Argentine dictatorship, is not only a devastating portrait of the abuse of power and machismo in Latin America, but a master class in the novel form in and on itself. Puig, who lived in exile for most of his life, reveled in the use of raw, unmarked dialogue and alternating points of view, and in turning seemingly vain pop culture references—B movies, soap operas—into profound and hysterical, twitching and heartbreaking classic pieces of storytelling.

Dirty Havana Trilogy: A Novel in Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9780060006891
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Ecco - February 5th, 2002

In October of 1998, the prestigious Barcelona-based house Anagrama published Matanzas-born Pedro Juan Gutiérrez's first book, DIRTY HAVANA TRILOGY, to instant critical and commercial success. Three months later, Bohemia, the Cuban magazine where he had worked as a journalist for twenty-six years, fired him without further explanation. Censorship of his works—unsentimental, seismic, in-your-freaking-face depictions of life, poverty, hunger and sex in Cuba under the Castro regime, that reject definition—ensued.

While some of his books have been translated to English and even published here in the past, they are still somewhat hard to find in the U.S. Banned in the island for years, Gutiérrez is now being published, and recognized, in his homeland. With a new book published by Anagrama last week—FABIÁN Y EL CAOS—and our newly restored buddy-ness with Cuba, make sure to watch out for the writings of soul-searing, flesh-slapping Gutiérrez. He might as well become the next Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness Cover Image
ISBN: 9780143125532
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Penguin Books - May 27th, 2014

With eighty-eight journalists killed since 2000, Mexico has become one of the world's most dangerous countries for reporters. "They are threatened and murdered by organized crime or corrupt officials with impunity," explains Reporters Without Borders. "The resulting climate of fear leads to self-censorship and undermines freedom of information."

Alfredo Corchado, a Nieman, Woodrow Wilson, and Rockefeller fellow and the Mexico bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, knows one thing or two about the willingness of Mexico's dark forces to silence journalists. One night in 2007, Corchado, who had long been reporting on government corruption, murders in Juárez, and Mexican ruthless drug cartels, received a tip that he could be the next target of the Zetas, a violent paramilitary group—and that he had twenty-four hours to find out if the threat was true.

MIDNIGHT IN MEXICO is not only the moving and gripping journey of a reporter to understand and expose the truths of the newfound country he left as a kid. It is also a must-read for those on this side of the border willing to understand the hidden war next door we are, admittedly or not, part of—one that keeps getting more convoluted, and more tragic, by the minute.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho is the author of the critically-acclaimed story collection BAREFOOT DOGS. A former John S. Knight Journalism fellow at Stanford University and a Dobie Paisano fellow in fiction, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Texas Monthly, Salon, Etiqueta Negra, and elsewhere. He lives in Austin, where he's at work on a novel.

Join us for our 5th Annual Banned Book Celebration on Saturday, October 3, 2015

Article Type Terms: